When Barb Marshall moved across Canada nine years ago, she didn’t know anybody in town and was feeling homesick. She comes from a letter writing family and when she got to her new place in Calgary there were well wishes cards and letters from her family already in her mailbox. Receiving those pieces of mail from her family was so meaningful that it inspired Barb to dive into something she was very passionate about. As Barb was already shifting careers (from human resources into the non-profit sector) along with the move she decided to try something new, so she started a website and a blog called Rite While U Can, following her love for letter writing and all things stationery. Even though at the time social media was just starting, snail mail was already fading out. Barb wanted to introduce others to the meaningful act of putting pen to paper and hopefully inspire others to write more letters.
We chatted with Barb over Zoom to learn more about Rite While U Can and Barb’s love for snail mail, typewriters and all things stationery.
Where does your love of handwritten letters come from?
I’ve always loved stationery. I love the tactile feel of paper and envelopes. There’s also something full of anticipation when you get a letter with your name written in someone’s handwriting. You may or may not recognize that handwriting but it’s always very exciting when you go to the mailbox. I just remember as kids loving to receive postcards from my grandparents. It was a fun thing to go to the mailbox and see if something was there. As I got older, I became more obsessed with beautiful stationery. I love the quest of finding the perfect card for someone. Just a love for paper and the tactile element to it, which involves all our senses. I love that!
Why do you think in this digital age it’s so important to preserve the art of handwriting letters?
First of all, there’s the whole idea of handwriting that is becoming lost. It isn’t taught in every school anymore. I think the act of writing in cursive is beautiful, and it’s unique to us. It’s our very own personalized version of us on paper. It does a few things for us that the digital realm does not:
1) It makes us slow down. I think it’s easy to click a button to do audio and do visual with digital medium but there’s something about the letter that slows us down. And we have to be quite deliberate about it, and that’s a good thing.
2) A letter is a document that will last forever. A text or a Snapchat will disappear eventually, but a letter will last forever. I don’t think people are keeping their emails in a shoebox, right? But people keep special letters. Then you get into the historical component of letter writing, and I think when people look back at this time around the pandemic and Covid it would be very fascinating to me to see what those letters reveal. I feel that the handwritten letter is even more important now to capture the real essence of people’s feelings.
3) It’s meaningful. You can tell so much from handwriting and I think that’s fascinating, but for me it’s more the meaningful act of thinking of that person. There’s no spell check, there’s no grammar correction so it slows me down and makes me more thoughtful. It’s very special.
And letter writing provides a much-needed break from digital, even if we don’t know we need a break. It gets us off the screen and it engages all of our other senses — maybe we are having a hot drink while we are doing it, maybe we’ve got music playing, we can hear the scratch of the pen on the paper. Doing something with our hands and engaging our brains in a different way is critical.
You also offer Letter Writing Socials, originally in person and for the past two years online. How did the idea of Letter Writing Socials come to be?
Honestly, I just thought there would be other people out there who would enjoy it. First of all, not many people have a manual typewriter and I have a collection. I’m a collector who likes to use what I collect; I don’t want to have the items just sitting around. It was also about getting other people excited about letter writing and I thought to do it through typewriters because there’s a charm about a typewriter; something I’ve discovered is that nobody can just walk past a typewriter. The idea was, “I’ve got these typewriters. Maybe some other people would like to use them, and we can write letters together.” So, I got to know the owners of some cafes and they loved the idea. We started small, in three different cafes, and it was really fun. But of course, then Covid happened and things had to change, so I moved online and I’ve been doing them almost every week on Instagram live; I have a typewriter in front of me and we all write letters for 30 minutes. I have a theme and I invite a special guest once a month, which is really fun.
Valentine’s Day is around the corner. Do you have any handwritten Valentine ideas you would like to share with our readers?
Oh, I love Valentine’s! Something really fun is to send a Valentine’s postmark and you can find out how on my blog. It may not be enough time for your readers to do it this year but it’s always fun if you have a little extra time. There are so many fun letter writing things to do. One example, which I do in my own home, is to get a pad from the dollar store in the shape of a heart and a mailbox for inside the home and leave family members Valentine letters and notes in the mailbox. Especially with young kids this could be a fun thing for the family. I also think maybe people should let go of any pressure to send the perfect Valentines because the whole point of any letter is to show someone that you care. Now, if it’s a romantic letter or romantic in nature I would encourage people to get creative. Maybe you use a red ink, you jazz it up with some washi tape if that has some beautiful pinks and reds and oranges. But the point is to send something. And I wouldn’t get hung up on the 14th; I would consider February a month-long celebration of love. Especially if you’ve never sent a letter or snail mail before, February is the perfect month because at least you have a reason, right? Often people ask me, “What would I write about?” and Valentine’s Day takes that away because now you have an idea.
Thank you, Barb, for sharing with us your passion for letter writing and all things stationery.